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Saturday, October 23, 2010
Updated: October 24, 10:54 AM ET
Giant cast of 'misfits' marches on

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- They have given themselves a chance to do something magical, something unforgettable, something their city has waited for from the beginning of recorded baseball time.

They can do something now that Willie McCovey never did. And Juan Marichal never did. And Barry Lamar Bonds never did.

And you know what we're talking about, right? On a mesmerizing Saturday night in October, those wacky, scrappy, often-unidentifiable San Francisco Giants put themselves in position to score themselves the first World Series win in the Pacific Time Zone history of their franchise.

They pulled off their latest David-zaps-Goliath act in the ballpark of the two-time defending National League champions, in front of 46,000 people who started the evening trying to rupture the Giants' eardrums and ended it by booing their victory celebration.

They pulled it off by spotting the Phillies two runs in the first inning, yanking their starting pitcher in the third inning, using three-fifths of their starting rotation by the eighth inning, turning an innocent hit-by-pitch into a bench-clearing rallying cry, scoring the tying run on an 85-foot squibber and getting a game-winning home run from a guy (Juan Uribe) who was starting at his third position since Opening Day.

Juan Uribe
Juan Uribe's homer got the underdog Giants into the World Series.

Oh, and did we mention it also took your basic five-out Great Adventure save by their trusty old he-pitches-with-his-beard-on-fire closer -- who ended the eighth inning with a line-drive double play and ended the final inning of the NLCS by running a full count on the local former MVP, with the tying and winning runs on base, then striking him out?

But then again, if you've been watching the Giants play baseball for more than, say, the last 20 minutes, you watched all that and said: "Of course they did!"

"That," said San Francisco's longtime bench coach, Ron Wotus, after his team's thrilling 3-2 Game 6 triumph over the Phillies, "was our type of game."

And so, for just the fourth time since the franchise moved to San Francisco -- back in 1958, during the Dwight Eisenhower administration -- the Giants are bound for the World Series.

But how did they get here? How did they do this? How did they pull off this miraculous magic-carpet ride, anyhow?

Exactly one starting position player who took the field for the Giants on Saturday had ever made an All-Star team. (That was Edgar Renteria, a guy who hit eighth, naturally, and went 1-for-16 in the NLCS.)

Precisely two of these guys started this game playing in the same place you could have located them back on Opening Day. (That would be Renteria, the shortstop, and Aubrey Huff at first base.)

Their cleanup hitter (Buster Posey) was in the minor leagues when this season started. Their No. 5 hitter (Pat Burrell) got released by Tampa Bay. Their No. 6 hitter (Cody Ross) was a waiver-claim special -- and all he did was win the NLCS MVP award.

They're a team loaded with so many retreads and reclamation projects that even their manager, Bruce Bochy, refers to them as "a bunch of misfits." But all you need to know about the 2010 Giants is that these guys actually take that as a compliment.

"Absolutely," said their favorite $11 million-a-year defensive replacement, Aaron Rowand. "Because we are."

They're one of those remarkable, hard-to-fathom stories that can happen only in a sport like this. The Yankees they aren't. Heck, the Phillies they aren't. And by Wednesday, you no doubt will be hearing talk that they don't belong in the same October telecast with the Texas Rangers, either.

But if you want to write off these San Francisco Giants in this World Series they're about to play in, we're warning you:

That just means they'll have you right where they want you -- again.

"We've been getting overlooked a lot," said closer Brian Wilson, who -- if he isn't quite the Face of the Franchise is at least The Facial Hair of the Franchise. "But that's just fine. You don't want to be the No. 1 seed. You want to be the underdog. And that's been happening every series."

Oh, and you can rest assured it will be happening again when that World Series rolls around, when many unsuspecting Americans will decide this team makes the Rangers -- a franchise that took 50 seasons to win its first postseason series -- look like the '39 Yankees.

But once again, we'll warn you. The specialty of the Giants' house is defying every baseball convention except this one:

If you can pitch, it makes almost anything else possible.

And boy, is this team living proof of that.

"When you have the kind of pitching staff we have," said Brian Sabean, the GM who assembled this group, "you can mix and match and experiment. If you decide you want to bring a guy up from the minor leagues and see how he looks, or you want to bring in people from the outside, or claim a guy on waivers, you really have nothing to lose -- because of the pitching staff we have."

There was a reason the GM was dripping champagne from every hair follicle, appendage and item of clothing as he uttered those words: Because he had just lived through one more terrifying Night at the Improv that was just the latest example of how this team manages to continually defy logic and win games like this.

Wilson We've been getting overlooked a lot. But that's just fine. You don't want to be the No. 1 seed. You want to be the underdog.

-- Giants closer Brian Wilson

Only two teams in history had ever done what the Giants were trying to do Saturday -- eliminate the back-to-back National League champions in a postseason game played on the champs' turf. One was the 1997 Marlins, who ended the Braves' reign in Atlanta. The other was the 1923 Yankees, who rode a home run by someone named Babe Ruth to eliminate the old New York Giants in the Polo Grounds.

But those teams didn't have to do it with a full moon beaming over their heads. And with 46,000 witnesses doing what Philadelphians do best -- make these unsuspecting visitors wish they did something else for a living. And by almost not surviving a first inning in which they nearly got blown out before this game was six batters old.

That's a rough way to kick off any ride on the old World Series Express. But, we remind you, that's just the Giants' way.

So when starter Jonathan Sanchez let three of the first four Phillies reach base, then gave up what looked as if it was going to be a towering, game-breaking three-run home run to Jayson Werth, many a heart fluttered in their dugout.

But then the October breezes blew Werth's space shuttle into "just" a sacrifice fly. And the Giants squirmed out of the first inning trailing by "just" 2-0. And as they retreated back to their dugout, with the PA system exploding and the ballpark rattling, they actually felt as if they were alive, well and more inspired than ever to scrape their way back into this thing.

"To come back here and have all the dreaded things you think about in the back of your mind," Huff said, "we know this is a tough place to play. And we did not want to go to Game 7 because, if we go to Game 7, it was going to be really panicky around here."

So two innings later, they called off the panic alert by splicing together one of the nuttiest two-run rallies you'll ever witness -- one in which just about every ball they hit should have turned into an out somewhere, and in which Andres Torres almost was out three different times. But somehow or other, when all that was through, the scoreboard read: Giants 2, Phillies 2.

And that's when this game really got weird.

Sanchez had only two more hitters in him. But at least he made them memorable. First, he walked Placido Polanco to kick off the festivities in the bottom of the third. Then he drilled Chase Utley -- for the third time this year -- in the back.

Roy Oswalt
The Phillies made some big acquisitions to try to keep their run of NL dominance going. It didn't happen.

As Utley headed up the first-base line, he found the baseball in his way. So he grabbed it and flipped it toward Sanchez, who was so delighted by that gesture that he screamed: "That's [insert colorful synonym for 'baloney' here]."

Utley then turned, stepped toward Sanchez and asked: "What's [baloney]?" And next thing they knew, every one of their teammates was scrambling from near and far to join the "What's baloney?" panel discussion.

It took a few minutes to get all that talked out. But once peace on earth was restored, something huge happened: This game was never the same.

Bochy decided he had seen enough of Sanchez, who had worked in only 24 strikes among his 50 pitches. So in marched reliever Jeremy Affeldt, to strand both Phillies runners, defuse this bomb scare and then sprint toward an energized dugout for a high-five festival.

"I'll tell you what," Wilson said. "That [near brawl] certainly lit a fire. I'm glad it happened. Because it made us wake up and realize what was at stake. At that point … we were looking for any reason to wake up. Don't wake a sleeping Giant."

Great advice. Because after that alarm went off, five Giants relievers would combine to rip off seven shutout innings. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the most shutout innings by a winning team's bullpen in a postseason clincher since the 1984 Padres put up 7 2/3 innings worth of zeroes against the Cubs in the NLCS. So that was fairly astounding.

It also made the Giants just the seventh team in the past 63 years to clinch any kind of postseason series in a game in which their starter was gonzo before he got seven outs. And that was kind of cool, too.

But what made this procession especially memorable was that two of those five "relievers" had also started games in this series -- Madison Bumgarner (who pitched the fifth and sixth) and Tim Lincecum (who faced three hitters in the eighth).

According to Elias, that made the Giants the first team to use at least three starting pitchers in a postseason game since the 1999 Braves used four in a wild 12-inning NLDS game in Houston -- and the first to do it in a nine-inning postseason game since the 1985 Royals used three starters in Game 1 of the ALCS.

"I was waiting," Aaron Rowand quipped, "for them to throw [Matt] Cain out there."

Absolutely. And where was Kirk Rueter when they needed him, too, for that matter? But ultimately, no more volunteers from the peanut gallery were necessary because, with two outs in the eighth inning, the Giants found one more misfit who wanted to be a hero.

That was Uribe, the one-time White Sox castoff who apparently had such a good time lofting the walk-off sacrifice fly that won Game 4 that he thought hitting a game-winning homer in the NLCS clincher would be even more fun. So he lofted a cutter into the first row in right, off Phillies reliever Ryan Madson, a guy who had allowed precisely one home run in his previous 47 appearances.

That stunning shot made Uribe just the seventh player in postseason history to drive in two game-winning runs in the eighth inning or later in the same series, according to Elias. But, way more important than that, it meant the Giants were six outs away.

The outs countdown was still at five when Wilson arrived to succeed Lincecum a few minutes later, with two on in the eighth and the Phillies' leading clutch hitter this year, Carlos Ruiz, at the plate.

Naturally, Wilson grooved him a 1-1 fastball down the middle -- and, naturally, Ruiz smoked it right into the glove of Huff, who found Shane Victorino wandering halfway to Chickie's and Pete's, and doubled him off second. Naturally.

Ross Two months ago [before he was a Giant], I thought I was going home and I'd be watching people celebrate on the field from my couch, thinking about my next round of golf. And now here I am.

-- NLCS MVP Cody Ross

"I never squeezed a ball harder," Huff reported afterward. "And I never lobbed a throw softer. There was no way I was going to throw that one away."

And neither, as it turned out, would the Giants. Barely. Wilson still had to show off his ever-present flair for the dramatic one more time, of course. So he walked two hitters in the ninth, bringing Ryan Howard to the dish with two outs, as the rally towels spun and the electrified ballpark shook one last time. And out there on the mound, Wilson confessed, he wasn't feeling so hot himself.

"I think my heart was beating so fast," he said, "I flatlined at one point."

Naturally, he worked the count to 3-2. And naturally, he left a fastball out over the plate that Howard fouled back, as the thunderous crowd oohed and aahed. But naturally, Wilson then busted out his other pitch, a cutter, which he claimed he'd been setting Howard up for the whole at-bat.

"I just felt like, if the season was going to come down to one pitch," he said, "I wanted it to come down to that pitch."

And so it did. Howard was looking fastball, locked up and let it go by. It might have been a half-inch low. But plate ump Tom Hallion pumped his fist for strike three. And a euphoric Giants hugfest was about to begin.

"When I saw [Hallion's] hand go up, it took me two or three seconds to realize what actually happened," said Huff, who had waited nine playoff-free seasons for a moment like this. "Then I didn't know what to do. So I ran in and punched Wilson as hard as I could."

"What an unbelievable feeling," Ross said. "Two months ago [when he was still a Marlin], I thought I was going home and I'd be watching people celebrate on the field from my couch, thinking about my next round of golf. And now here I am. It's crazy how the game works."

But just as crazy was this whole scene -- this team of unlikely champions pounding each other's backs amid almost total silence, in the ballpark of the team whose era of National League domination they had just ended, watched by fans whose only emotion was disbelief.

"It was surreal," said Rowand, who once spent two seasons (2006-07) playing himself into an official folk hero in Philadelphia. "I even thought about that in the middle of the celebration because I know how loud this place can be. … I took a step back and looked around and saw all the fans standing there in total silence. It was an eerie feeling. I'm used to these fans going nuts."

But this, of course, was simply what the passing of a torch looks like. One of these teams had played in two straight World Series, winning one just two years ago. The other was heading for only its third World Series since 1962 -- with a chance to do something no Giants team has done since 1954:

Rule the baseball planet.

Only the Cubs (1908) and Indians (1948) have been title-free for longer. So no wonder Wilson found himself gripping the mammoth National League championship trophy so tight afterward that you wondered whether he might take it into the shower with him.

"If that's what the National League trophy looks like," someone asked him, "how big do you think the World Series trophy will look?"

"I hope," said Wilson, a man who looked as if he had just taken a swim through a pool filled with champagne, "it's a skyscraper."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.